The secret to a better life? Talk to strangers!

Although I consider myself an extrovert, I find it more than a little intimidating to talk to strangers. Yes, like many of us, perhaps I was warned as a child not to talk to strangers. That may have had an effect, but I think it is most likely due to the fear of rejection.

However, I recognize that it’s a fear that needs to be overcome. While my skills have improved over time, it is still hard. But my most recent experiences talking to strangers have been wonderful and lead me to the realization that having a little more courage in these situations could be beneficial. I recently visited Tucson, Arizona, for the first time, to attend a conference organized by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. On my trip to Tucson, I was more or less my usual self: polite but did not engage in conversation if it was not initiated.

But on my Lyft ride to my hotel, “Cindy,” the driver, was very friendly as she collected me from the airport. I responded, and she gave me a tour of the area we were driving through replete with advice on the best places to eat. After I got to the conference, I met my friend and her work colleague. My friend is an extremely friendly extrovert. Her presence allowed me to more easily interact with new people since she would often initiate conversations. I also had the company of her colleague, someone with whom I got along well. I had companionship without much extra effort on my part.

Then, the test. My friend had to leave the conference early and her colleague, my new friend, was attending an event that I opted not to attend. I had an evening to look forward to that involved me eating dinner alone and an early bedtime. I did not mind the early night, but given my personality, I didn’t particularly want to eat dinner alone.

It would only make me more acutely aware of how much I was missing my family. Since it felt overwhelming not only to strike up a conversation but a dinner partner as well, I accepted that it would be my fate. I needed a shuttle bus to return to my hotel from the conference, which due to a longer than usual wait time, led to some small talk with another conference attendee returning to the same hotel. Typically, I would have kept the conversation superficial, but since we had time, I asked about locations to eat dinner. He started talking to other conference participants, and I interjected at times. I also learned more about him, “Chad.” We ended up being each other’s dinner companions at a popular Mexican restaurant. I now had the acquaintance of a bright, fascinating resourceful millennial entrepreneur, someone with whom I definitely plan to keep in touch. I engaged in a few more such conversations.

I had another interesting conversation with “Bob,” my Lyft driver who happened to be a retired physician. We had a stimulating conversation about the current health care system in America and our mutual interest in writing.

While boarding the plane, I exchanged few words with another passenger and physician who coincidentally ended up in my row. I discovered that he too had attended the conference and when he discovered my specialty he immediately introduced me to his travel companion Amy* who was in training for the same specialty. I shared some insight into the field with her.

Those experiences not only enhanced my travel experience, but, according to research from Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, may have enhanced my life expectancy. Her research finding suggests that social isolation is a bigger risk factor for early death than even obesity. As so eloquently expounded in the Ted talk by Susan Pinker, this includes not just the amount and quality of our close friendships but our daily casual social interactions.

So while I will suggest prudence, I believe and know that there are many safe environments to talk to strangers. I encourage you to do so not only because of the proven benefits to ourselves but also because I believe that the benefits to our community and our country as a whole would be far greater.

Monique Rainford is an obstetrician-gynecologist.

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